Education leaders weren’t entirely surprised by Gov. Ned Lamont’s closure of schools for the rest of the year, but the prospect of not gathering again until next school year was disappointing.
Lamont said it won’t be safe to reconvene schools this academic year, a decision recommended by the Reopen Connecticut advisory group. Distance learning will continue until summer break and the state plans to allow youth summer camps to operate this year under “some pretty strict social distancing requirements.”
While the move seemed likely to school superintendents, some had held out hope that at least the end of school experience could be salvaged, particularly for graduating seniors.
“As much as we were intellectually prepared for it, emotionally it’s still a little bit of a blow,” said Jeff Solan, Cheshire school superintendent. “Everybody’s looking forward to getting back, seeing the kids, seeing each other.”
Meriden School Superintendent Mark Benigni said he was anticipating the order to keep schools closed.
Benigni and Board of Education President Robert Kosienski Jr. told parents the district plans to honor the 2020 graduating class, but details have yet to be worked out.
“We will continue to see how social distance guidelines evolve over the coming weeks before making any firm graduation decisions,” Kosienski and Benigni wrote in a joint statement to parents.
“We're committed to having a graduation that will involve receiving a diploma in hand, however we are able to do it,” Kosienski said.
Kosienski said despite being “saddened” that students won’t be returning to schools, he is grateful Meriden was able to continue classes online and praised school staff.
Many students have gone more than seven weeks without personal interaction with friends, which prompted the district to provide additional social-emotional and recreational services.
“Our district has shared resources with families and staff members who may need outside support,” Benigni said. “Our staff has done multiple creative outreach events to try to connect with students safely. Though we are all socially distancing, our physical education staff and other staff members are encouraging healthy lifestyles by assigning exercise and outdoor activities.”
Kosienski, who speaks to students daily, has heard their concerns and desires to be with friends and teachers.
“Having a FaceTime or Zoom conversation isn't the same as hanging out with friends after class, seeing them on the field, performing on stage or just ‘hanging out,’” Kosienski said.
Order eases planning
While Lamont’s order was a disappointment, it does simplify planning for some districts. Solan said Cheshire officials had to keep two contingencies in mind — continued distance learning and the possibility of reopening schools shortly before the end of the school year.
“Now we only have to focus on how to support students for the rest of this year and prepare for a successful return for next year,” he said.
More certainty also helps the district better forecast its financial needs.
While most students have a chance to return next school year, Solan felt bad for graduating seniors. A host of events marking the end of a school career can’t take place due to the restrictions.
“For me, the biggest thing is high school graduation,” he said. “We’re still looking at, how do we make the close of the year special, for our seniors in particular?”
Monday was teacher appreciation day, and Solan said families sent in a flood of messages, tweets and videos.
“It’s clear that we miss each other,” he said.
Central office work continues despite the closure. Vincent Masciana, the Cheshire school district’s chief operating officer, said workers are still providing meals to children and have served more than 85,000 meals since March 18.
The district plans to replace windows during the summer and opened bids for the work outside on Monday – a first according to Masciana.
Wallingford School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo said he believes most people are glad to have a decision.
“Now that we know definitely that schools will not reopen for students and staff, we can focus on a successful completion of the school year,” he said. “It is sad, but we understand that student and staff safety must be the key at this time.”
Support from teachers union
The state's largest teachers union, the Connecticut Education Association, praised Lamont's decision. The union understands “the emotion and sadness regarding closing schools and missing certain milestones and celebrations” but protecting the health of students and staff should be the top priority, CEA President Jeff Leake said.
Meanwhile, Lamont said efforts are still underway to distribute remote learning resources, including 60,000 Dell laptops and 185,000 Scholastic book packs. They've been arriving in waves because of the global supply chain shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Information from the Associated Press is included in this story.